I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2015. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written between 1960 and 1989 inclusive and be from the mystery category.
I read this for the category S-6, “Book with a Professional Detective.”
The Perry Mason mysteries always feature two professional detectives. One is the PI named Paul Drake and the other is an LAPD Homicide Detective, Inspector Arthur Tragg. In the books, Drake, Tragg and Mason are all about the same age and have a wary respect for each other. In the TV show, although Tragg was much older than Drake and Mason, Ray Collins (an actor since the age of 13 and a core member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre) was quite convincing with his crusty manner and cold unamused glances at Mason when the lawyer was pulling a suspicious shenanigan.
The Case of the Beautiful Beggar – Erle Stanley Gardner, 1965
Twenty-two year old knockout Daphne Shelby claims to be the niece of seventy-five year old Horace Shelby. She has been instructed by her uncle to cash a check for $125,000 (in today’s money, about $920K). Then she was to have Mason prepare a will leaving all uncle’s property to her and bring it to the house for his signature. But she has found the bank account cleaned out. And to her horror, shrewd and designing relatives have had Horace declared incompetent, committed to rest home by a dodgy medico, and gotten themselves appointed conservators of his goods and chattels.
Mason knows crooked relatives when he sees them. Feeling sorry for the young woman and her vulnerable uncle, Mason handles the civil proceedings as to the competency hearings. He also engineers a banking sleight of hand to get some of his client’s money back.
The first half of the book moves along briskly and interestingly, but we veteran Gardner readers do wonder when the killing is going to occur. It finally does, but the murder, the trial, and the reveal seem rather mechanical, as if Gardner were just connecting the dots for the average reader that’s sitting in a waiting room and needing some diversion.
In fact, that crime side is treated so routinely and hastily hints that Gardner was more interested in writing about a theme important to himself. He was, like the victimized codger in this book, 75 years old when he wrote this mystery. He’s thus able to put extra energy and insight into examining what it must feel to be like to old, vulnerable, and the target of heartless scumbags who want to undermine his sanity, strip him of his property, and warehouse him in a crappy nursing home until he dies. Recall in 1965, only about 9% of white males born in 1890 where still alive so Gardner was writing about a relatively rare situation, though obviously of extreme import to the victim involved. Heaven knows, because people are living longer, exploitation of the elderly is more common nowadays, making this mystery approach the definition of literature, in Ezra Pound’s words, “news that stays news.”
Usually the Mason novels of the 1960s mildly disappoint but because Gardner is writing about something so important to him, this is well worth reading for hardcore Mason readers (like me). And it would be worth reading for gerontologists and others into issues facing the elderly.